My family history includes pancreatic cancer, and so I was shocked to learn that processed meats (containing sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite as an additive) increases the risk of pancreatic cancer by 68%, according to a nearly 200,000 subject study out of the University of Hawaii in 2005.  I knew nitrates and nitrites were associated with stomach cancer, but that was a new one for me.

But what other food additives are Americans consuming on a regular basis that are hazardous to our health?  Read your labels (the list of ingredients, not just the nutrition facts) and avoid these big ones.

  • Sodium nitrate/ sodium nitrite: I just covered that one, and to me that’s a pretty good reason to avoid the heck out of them.  These can be found in processed meats as preservatives (processed meats include sausage, bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meats, to name a few.  Note: all of these foods can be made without nitrates or nitrites, and they will be advertised as such.  Read your labels!)
  • Artificial sweeteners (Acesulfame-potassium, Splenda/sucralose, Equal or NutraSweet/aspartame, Sweet ‘N Low/saccharin): Collectively these are associated with leukemia, brain tumors, breast cancer, bladder cancer, uterine and ovarian cancer, skin cancer, immune dysfunction, DNA damage, preterm delivery, and neurological problems.  I’m definitely not a big fan of excessive sugar, but real sugar is definitely a better choice than these.
  • Food Colorings: Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6: These are typically found in processed things you shouldn’t be eating anyway, like sodas, candy, and certain baked goods, although Red 40 can also be found in processed sausage.  Collectively these are associated with allergies, brain tumors, bladder and testicular cancer, thyroid tumors, adrenal tumors, kidney tumors, ADD/ADHD and hypersensitivity reactions.
  • Along those lines, Caramel Coloring: this is produced by heating sugar with ammonia or ammonium compounds, and it’s ubiquitous, found in colas, soy and Worcestershire sauces, chocolate-flavored products, beer, and pre-cooked meats.  It has also been linked with cancer… but this is a somewhat bigger one to watch for than the colorings above, because it really is all over the place.
  • Sodium Benzoate/Benzoic Acid: used as a preservative in juices, sodas, and pickles.  When used in beverages containing ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), the two react to form small amounts of benzene, a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).
  • Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA): used as a preservative for fat, this has been linked with cancer in rats, mice, and hamsters (so, for good reason, it’s a suspected carcinogen in humans).  Its cousin, Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) may be linked with cancer as well.  Often these two are used with Propyl Gallate, a preservative of fats as well, also a suspected carcinogen.
  • Potassium Bromate: improves the volume of bread.  Bromate usually breaks down into bromide, which does not appear to be harmful.  However, bromate itself is a carcinogen in animals, and it has been banned nearly everywhere except in Japan and the United States.
  • Monosodium Glutamate/MSG: used as a flavor enhancer in various processed foods, this is primarily a problem only for individuals who are sensitive (sensitivities include headaches and migraines, nausea, burning sensations, increased heart rate, weakness, and wheezing or difficulty breathing).  However, large amounts have been associated with neural damage in animal studies.
  • Sulfites (sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfite): a preservative and bleaching agent in some wine, dried fruit, and processed shrimp and potatoes, these can cause severe asthma reactions in sensitive individuals.  They are also a relatively common trigger for migraines.  (Again, you can find all of these foods without sulfites – read your labels.)
  • Sugar alcohols (isomalt, lactitol, sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol): these are not as sweet as sugar, have a much lower glycemic index and don’t cause tooth decay – but the reason they have a lower glycemic index is because they are poorly absorbed.  This means that they hang out longer in the gut, increasing the risk of gas and bloating, and in some cases loose stools and diarrhea.  It’s probably therefore a good idea to not overdo them.

I know, I know – what are we supposed to eat, then?  Really I only try to totally avoid the top two on this list (sulfates/sulfites and artificial sweeteners).  Beyond that, my rules are these:

  • The shorter the ingredient list, the better.  
  • If I don’t recognize the ingredient, it doesn’t go in my body if I can help it.  
  • Choose foods that will spoil, and eat them before they do.  The less processed, the better.

Want more information where that came from?  Here you go.